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Tips for using this healthy, flavorful oil

This oil's got history going for it, that's for sure. One of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world, the olive tree is native to Asia Minor. It is thought to have spread to the Mediterranean region -- now well-known for its use of olive oil -- about 6,000 years ago.

You can buy domestic olive oil (using mostly Californian grown olives) or imported oils from France, Greece, Spain, and Italy.

This uniquely green and flavorful oil can be less green and less flavorful, depending on the type you buy. If you want to use it at high temperatures or in baking, try one of the "light" olive oils. This type goes through a fine filtration process, producing lighter-colored oil that lacks the classic olive flavor.

What if you want a fragrant and flavorful oil, for salad dressings or for adding to a dish after cooking? Olive oil that's extra-virgin and cold-pressed (a chemical-free process that involves only pressure, producing an oil with low acidity) is considered the fruitiest and finest type, according to The Food Network's online encyclopedia.

More and more people are cooking with olive oil, perhaps because Mediterranean cuisine is in vogue, or because of the oil's distinctive flavor, or its potential health benefits. How about all of the above?

A Smart Fat

Nutrition experts consider omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fish and some plant foods, to be a "smart fat." The other "smart fat" is monounsaturated fat -- the type olive oil is rich in.

Environmental Nutrition (The Newsletter of Food, Nutrition & Health) recommends that monounsaturated fats make up most of your fat intake, with polyunsaturated fats comprising the rest, according to Luanne Hughes, MS, RD.

Unsaturated fatty acids, whether monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, can lower your levels of "bad" cholesterol (which decreases your risk of heart disease) if you eat them instead of saturated fatty acids, Hughes says. Saturated fat -- found mostly in animal products and in palm and coconut oils -- is the main dietary cause of high bloodcholesterol, according to the American Heart Association.

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